Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 9 February 1862

Date: February 9, 1862

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from George Washington Whitman, Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, ed. Jerome M. Loving (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 41-45. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00314

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, Eric Conrad, Gillian Price, and April Lambert




1862
Roanoak Island  North Carolina   Feb 9th1

Dear Mother

I wrote you last when we arived at Hateras Inlet nearly a month since but dont know as you received it as I hear the leters did not leave there untill we left to come here, which was on Wednesday last,  this island is on Palmico2 Sound about 45 miles from Hateras and is about 12 miles long and 4 wide  we left Hateras with a fleet of about 70 vessels  only 15 or 16 of which was fighting crafts  the rest were tow boats old steamboats and schooners,  we had about 13000 Infantry on board the transports and came to anchor near hear on Thursday afternoon  on Friday Morning we got under way  the gunboats taking the lead and as soon as we got within range the gunboats opened fire on the Batteries [on the shore?] here, and they blazed away back, it was a fine sight  the shells bursting all around the batteries and sending up a column of sand 20 feet high and the Batteries throwing shot and shells like blazes  the Staten Island Ferry boat Hunchback which had some heavy guns on board was shot through and through but she anchored and stuck to it like a good fellow  they kept it up untill dusk and then hauled off for the night About 5 O Clock in the afternoon our regiment landed  one of the gunboats throwing shell to cover us  one of the Mass regts landing just about the same time, we were on boad of an old stern wheel steamboat which took us up so close that we jumped on shore  we had to wade about 200 yards through mud and water up to our knees and then found a spot not very dry but we stoped there for the night  we built fires and tried to dry ourselves as well as we could  took our supers of hard crackers and then laid down for the night. About 11 O Clock it comenced to rain not very hard but enough to make it very unpleasant  I stuck it out until my blanket got wet through, and then got up and stood around the fire until morning  we had breakfast of good crackers, put more crackers in our haversacks and then fell in for a march  we moved off in two Brigades  we being the second numbering all told about 7000 men with a battery of 5 howitzers  we struck directly into the woods and soon heard the firing comence on the right of the first Brigade  we were in a wagon path and all around us was a thick wood almost as thick as the woods around Deer Park3  we kept on, the first Brigade driving the enemy untill we got into a thick swamp where the mud and water was over the top of my boots and the bushes was so thick that we had the greatest difficulty in getting through  we kept on however untill we drove them chock into their Batery which was one of the celabrated masked Bateries we have heard so mutch about  our regiment worked around on their right flank through a thicket that you would think it was imposible for a man to pass through  it was might trying to a fellows nerves as the balls was flying around pretty thick  cutting the twigs off overhead and knocking the bark off the trees all around us, but our regiment behaved finely and pressed on as fast as possible  we were under fire about an hour and a half before our regiment dare fire a shot for fear of shooting our own friends as we could not see 10 yards on either side. As soon as our regt got sight of the Batery Gen Renno4 who is our Brigadeer General gave the order to charge and away we went  the water flying over our heads as we splashed through it  I was in my position on the left flank of our regt when I heard the order to charge so that when I reached the Battery our colors and the flag of the 9th New York and the 21st Mass were planted there  ours were there first however but it was mighty tight between us and the others  when the other regts came in you can bet there was some tall shouting  but there was nary a rebel in sight for as soon as they saw us start on a charge they started to run, one of the rebels lay there dead by his gun  another lay badly wounded  a few feet further in the bushes lay an old man with beard perfectly white, dead, here and there heaps of knapsacks haversacks and clothes guns and amunition  I picked up this paper and envelope inside the Battery and as I wanted a pair of drawers I found a new pair and a lot of hankerchiefs which I lost again  we soon formed again and started after the rebels  quite a number of whome had broke for the shore about a mile off  the way was pretty well strewn with blankets an coats thrown off by the rebels as they ran. a few of them escaped in boats but we got 40 or 50 there  among the rest was Mr. O jennings Wise5 son of Gov Wise of Virginia who was badly wounded and I believe dided to day. he came to the Island yesterday morning with 600 of the noted Wise Legion  he was a fine looking young fellow and plucky, we took these prisoners to a house near by and started off in the woods to look for more game and we found it,  after traveling about an hour we found two dead rebels lying in the woods and farther on lay another just dying  the top of his head being shot off  a little way from these we met a dozen rebels with a white flag  we took care of them and soon met another party with a flag  they said they came from a large force and wanted to make terms for a surender  our general told them unles they made an unconditional surender at once he would order his forces to fire but they had had enough for one day and stacked their arms and wilted without a strugle  they numbered about 1600 men and had cleared a space of a couple of hundred acres of land in the woods and erected splendid barracks for I should think 20,000 men  the buildings have floors and fire places and shingle roofs  I have not counted the buildings but should think there was 75 or 80  some 25 or 30 of which are about 100 feet by 50 and a good many first rate log houses and a large hospital Building  quite a quantity of stores were found in some of the buildings consisting of bacon, rice, crackers  all of which we took peacable posession of and we have slaughtered hogs enough in the woods to keep us all in fresh pork last night and today with a small stock for tomorrow  we are living now like fighting cocks and prisoners have been comeing in and giving themselvs up and squads of them have been taken by our pickets all day so that we must have some 2500 to night  I have seen 1 or 2 Colonels and lots of captain and other Officers among them  they have been working here the prisoners say for the last 5 months puting up these buildings and I give them credit for haveing built tip top quarters  the loss of our regiment was remarkable small  I think not over 10 killed and 10 or 12 wounded  I think the loss on our side not more than 40 killed and 70 or 80 wounded  it is a miracle to me that our loss was so small when I think how the bullets wized around our heads. The enemy had a great advantage in knowing the ground and could pick his position while we had to follow without knowing were we were going  they thought they would tole us up to the Bateries and then slaughter us as they did at Bethell6  they say they did not think we would go in that water and fight  the Batery was made of turf and had 4 guns  we whiped them fair and square on their own ground and they say we are a good deal smarter than they thought we were. It was rather a sickening sight to see the wounded brought along the road but I expected sutch things so that it did not effect me mutch and after a while we would pass them lying in the bushes and think nothing of it  I was as calm and cool during the whole affair as I am at any time and I was perfectly surprised to see how well our troops acted  our Generals too Renno and Foster7 acted first rate  Burnside8 and Pratt9 I believe was not on shore  they were atending to the forts on shore  Pratts Brigade I believe did not land untill the fleet silenced some of the Bateries  the fleet went to work yesterday morning about the same time that we did  knocked tar out of some of the Batteries on the shore and scared the rebels so that they left others before the fleet fired a shot into them  I went down to one of their Batteries this afternoon and was surprised to see how large and well aranged it was  it was made of turf  the parapet which shields the guners being about 15 ft thick and 8 or 9 feet high with embrasures to rain the guns out  it mounted 10 guns  2 of them being 32 pound Parrot guns rifled and the others heavy smoothe bore guns  I could see from there three other Forts  one they say just like the one I was in  another mutch larger and mounting 18 large guns and I believe there are some others that I have not seen  some of them were silenced by the fleet and I supose they it was no use to try to hold the others as we were in the rear of them and we would have been at them if they had staid.  So Mammy I think we done a pretty good days work yesterday marching 15 or 16 miles and fighting with boots filed with water for 4 hours.  Wel Mammy how are you all and whats the news  are you and Mat and the baby and all the rest wel  write to me as soon as ever you can and tell me all the news  I wish Walt if he is home, or Jeff would send me some papers  often it is a great treat to get a sight of a New York Paper  I should like one giveing a discription of the battle  I supose you will see a good acount of it  as I saw 2 or three reporters in the field yesterday, Direct 51 Regt N.Y.V. Burnsides coast division  Roanoak Island  North Carolina  good night Mother


G W Whitman

The only efects I feel of my work yesterday is a little stiffness in my legs from walking10


Notes:

1. Completing one hundred days' military duty, the men of the Thirteenth Regiment were mustered out of service on August 6, 1861. More than half of them, however, joined other military units being formed when the war appeared to be far from over. On September 18, 1861, George Whitman re-enlisted as a private in the Fifty-First Regiment of New York Volunteers (known as the Shepard Rifles) for a period of three years. The next day Whitman was promoted to the rank of sergeant major by Colonel Edward Ferrero, the regiment's first commanding officer. About October 29, 1861, Whitman's regiment left New York for training duty at Annapolis, Maryland. While there Whitman became ill and had to spend a few weeks recuperating at a private residence in the area. On January 6, 1862, not long after Whitman's return to his regiment, the Fifty-First Regiment, as a part of the Burnside Expedition, sailed for Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The objective of this land-sea expedition was to capture certain Confederate positions on the coast of North Carolina. The chief results of the campaign were the seizures of Roanoke Island, New Bern, and Fort Macon. The expedition reached Fort Monroe on January 10, 1862, and Hatteras Inlet about the middle of the same month. After some two weeks of weighing anchor there waiting for the rest of the Union vessels to arrive and for the weather to improve, Burnside's troops attacked the Confederate forces at Roanoke Island on February 7, 1862. In this, the first extant letter written after the time of his re-enlistment, George Whitman describes the first of many battles he was to survive throughout the Civil War. [back]

2. Pamlico. [back]

3. Walt Whitman described Deer Park as "a little cluster of houses [on Long Island near Farmingdale] in the midst of the woods" in "Letters from a Travelling Bachelor," Number 5, for the New York Sunday Dispatch. See Joseph Jay Rubin, The Historic Whitman (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1973), 329. [back]

4. Jesse Lee Reno (1823–1862) then commanded the second brigade, in which Whitman's regiment was fighting. [back]

5. Captain O. Jennings Wise died as a result of wounds on February 9, 1862. His father, Brigadier General Henry Alexander Wise, was the Confederate officer in command at the battle of Roanoke Island. [back]

6. Great Bethel, Virginia. Like the assault on Roanoke Island, the unsuccessful attempt by Union forces to capture the Confederate position at Bethel on June 10, 1861, was also a land-sea operation. [back]

7. John Gray Foster (1823–1874) commanded the first brigade of Burnside's land force. [back]

8. Ambrose Everett Burnside (1824–1881) who at the outbreak of the war organized the First Rhode Island Infantry. He was then in command of the Expedition Against the Coast of North Carolina. [back]

9. Calvin Edward Pratt (1828–1896) recruited and commanded the Thirty-First New York Infantry. [back]

10. For a more detailed account of Whitman's experiences in the battle of Roanoke Island, see Civil War Diary[back]


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